There was civil war in Norway. Faction pitted itself against faction, each having a pretender fighting for the throne and the supremacy of the country. Father fought son, brother against brother. No one felt safe.
One faction was the Birkebeiners (the underdogs) who were persecuted and victimised. Living out in the open these people were in such dire need that they had nothing but the bark of birch trees as footwear. The word Birkebeiner, (literally "birch legs"), has come to mean a person strong in adversity, never daunted by trials and hardships.
The chieftain of the Birkebeiners, Sverre, had gained ascendancy over great parts of the country, but the rival faction (the Baglers) prevailed in the Oslo area and in the more affluent eastern parts of the country. Under Sverreās son, Haakon, the conflict subsided, but the fighting flared up again when Haakon died in 1204.
Haakonās son, Haakon Haakonsson (the little prince), was born a couple of weeks after the death of his father, and in him the Baglers saw a dangerous rival pretender. The Birkebeiners knew that the life of the young prince was at stake and decided to take him north to Trondheim where he would be safe. On Christmas eve the party of refugees came to a small farmhouse in Lillehammer, where they stayed in hiding over Christmas. Due to bad weather and difficult snow conditions the two best skiers, Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka, had to go ahead and leave the rest of the party behind. Never flinching, the two of
them carried the child, in whom they had high hopes for the future of Norway, across the barren mountains to Rena in the Osterdalen valley, a distance of 55 km. There they were well received by local farmers and given horses and food for the further escape north to Trondheim. Early in January 1206 they set forth again. Finding it risky to follow the route up the Gudbrandsdalen valley to Trondheim, they cut across the mountains to the neighbouring Osterdalen valley. Haakon Haakonsson eventually became king (1217-63), ended the civil war and established peace in the country. Under him Norway enjoyed its heyday in theMiddle Ages.
On this trip they suffered much from cold, snow and wind. Behind the saga lies a deed of valour and strength with an appeal to skiers of all ages and nations. Their deed is celebrated today with the annual Birkebeiner races in Norway (55 km), USA (50km) and Australia (21 km). The first Norwegian Birkebeiner race was held in 1932 (155 skiers), the American Birkebeiner 1973 (70 skiers) and the Australian Birkebeiner in 1979 (80 skiers).
The 5.5 kg pack carried by the present-day Birkebeiners (now only in the Norwegian race) symbolises the weight of the 18 month old prince. The idea is that it should contain the necessities for rough mountain weather.
As in all races some skiers compete for a top placing, but it is a feature of this race that the ultimate goal of every participant is to finish inside a time limit. Those who succeed are awarded a pin, considered the hallmark of a skier. The time limit in each age group is made up on the basis of the average of the time of the 5 fastest (3 fastest in the Australian Birkebeiner) skiers in an age group, plus a time increment of 25% added.
Both the Norwegian and American Birkebeiner races are foundation members of Worldloppet which was established in 1981. The Australian Birkebeiner is not part of Worldloppet but the Kangaroo Hoppet, which developed from it, was admitted in 1990 with the first event being conducted in 1991.